Growing holiday trees not always ho-ho-ho

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Starting the day after Thanksgiving each year, cars parked along Broadway in Granville begin sprouting trees.

By today, most of the cars and SUVs parked in front of local restaurants and shops will be sporting evergreens.

“There is not a Saturday from Thanksgiving to Christmas that there aren’t cars lined up on Broadway with Christmas trees on top,” said Mollie Prasher, Granville village clerk. “It’s tradition. They come out here and they cut their trees, and they come into Granville for lunch or an early dinner.”

It’s a point of pride for her. “There’s something that wells up in your heart that so many people want to come here,” she said.

It helps that the town is surrounded by family-owned Christmas-tree farms in Licking County — the state’s top-producing county based on trees harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ohio had about 500 such farms on 8,000 acres, making it ninth in the nation for Christmas-tree production in 2007, the latest USDA figures available. The Ohio Christmas Tree Association says it knows of about 300 farms in Ohio, which has seen a decline in Christmas-tree production in the past decade.

Retail prices range from $20 to $100 or more, and the higher-priced trees sometimes raise questions if not eyebrows. But Ohio growers, who sold about 273,000 trees worth $8 million in 2007, say buyers often don’t know how much work is involved in growing the perfect Christmas tree.

Best known among farms in the Granville area is Timbuk Farms, on Rt. 661 north of the village, but there are many other family operations, such as Homestead Christmas Tree Farm on Loudon Street, on the northwest side of town.

Joe White, whose family has worked the land there for decades, says some who visit the farm ask about the cost, which generally ranges from $25 to $60.

For starters, a farmer needs land, said White, 64, who works the farm with his five siblings, his children and a host of nieces and nephews. Some are buying or leasing land, but he and his three brothers and two sisters inherited the farm from their parents. Taxes and maintenance are ongoing expenses.

Next, it takes seven to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree. The Whites’ traditional-crop farm also became a tree farm starting with a brother’s college forestry project in 1980.

“We plant about 1,000 to 1,100 trees per acre — about 2,500 per year,” he said. And if they’re lucky, 70 percent of them survive assaults by a multitude of potential killers — severe weather; deer, which like to nibble and rub up against them; and insects and diseases, each of which has its own special way of crippling or killing trees.

White said about half of his customers are from Columbus, and the most popular tree at the Homestead farm is the Canaan fir, which is similar to the Fraser fir. “We buy them when they’re 3- to 5-year-old seedlings, so they’re 8 to 14 inches tall when we get them.”

Sometimes, the family tills a field and seeds it with grass before planting trees. They also sometimes spray herbicide on the strip where the trees will go to keep weeds at bay, because weeds can quickly overshadow little seedlings and stunt growth or send them bobbing and weaving for light, which can result in crooked trunks.

The family plants seedlings in April using a tractor and a planter that is part mechanical and part human. The planter makes a slit in the earth, a human riding on it drops a seedling into it every 6 feet or so, and the planter tamps the slit closed around the seedlings.

By May or June, the weeds are tall enough that it’s time for the first of three or four mowings — up and down each row.

By June, “while everyone else is heading off for vacation,” White said, he and others in his family are pirouetting around each of their thousands of trees to shear and shape them — in 90-degree heat and amid mosquitoes, deer flies and poison ivy. Imagine trimming a miles-long hedge on the worst possible day.

Bill Cackler, past president of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association and owner of Cackler Family Farms, 7 miles northeast of Delaware on Cackler Road, said most people are surprised by how much work it is.

He said he visits every one of his 23,000 trees at least once a year to check on their well-being. “At two or three minutes per tree, that’s a lot of time,” he said.

At various times, the trees need an inoculation against pests and diseases, which requires buying sprayers and chemicals.

“Scotch pines are pretty high-maintenance,” White said. “There are about a half-dozen diseases we have to keep on top of. And there are a few insects, too.”

Most of the equipment requires fuel, which has steadily increased in price. That includes the tractors that pull wagons full of families to the fields to cut their own trees.

“We absorbed that for a lot of years, and when we raised the prices to recover some of that, some people asked about the price,” White said. “When you explain all of this, most people understand.”

Cackler, a retired teacher, said most Ohio Christmas-tree farmers have choose-and-cut operations, rather than wholesale, because “they’re selling an experience.”

And while his farm provides the primary income for him, his wife and their son-in-law, many tree farmers have other jobs.

White said all of his family members who work at the farm have other incomes.

“Anybody out here helping, we give them a little incentive,” White said about his family, “but it’s mostly a chance to get together. What we’re making now will pay taxes and upkeep on the property, and for a little of our time, but it’s not a money-maker.

“We do it mainly because we like to see the families coming out here for their trees. We have people who have come out here every year.”

Prasher expects a bigger crowd than normal in Granville today because Thanksgiving was later than usual this year, and shoppers have one fewer weekend to get into the fields to find a tree. And she expects a bumper crop on Dec. 7, when the village holds its annual Christmas Walk with entertainment and street vendors from 1 to 9 p.m.

“It’s tradition,” she said.



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